N.Y. shul’s rabbis ‘regret’ email praising U.N. Palestine vote

Rabbis at B'nai Jeshurun are expressing “regret” over an email sent out by the prominent New York synagogue praising the United Nations vote to elevate Palestinians to non-member state status.

The rabbis of the Manhattan synagogue sent a note Thursday to congregants saying that their email last week endorsing the U.N. action had been sent prematurely and mistakenly listed several other synagogue officials as signatories.

“While we affirm the essence of our message, we feel that it is important to share with you that through a series of unfortunate internal errors, an incomplete and unedited draft of the letter was sent out which resulted in a tone which did not reflect the complexities and uncertainties of this moment,” the rabbis, Rolando Matalon, Marcelo Bronstein and Felicia Sol, wrote in their followup email.

The rabbis also wrote that they “regret the feelings of alienation that resulted from our letter.”

The latest email was first reported by The New York Jewish Week.

The original email, sent last Friday, drew both praise and outrage from members of the nondenominational Upper West Side synagogue, which is known for its liberal politics and lively services. The email and ensuing controversy drew significant media attention, including a front-page story in The New York Times on Wednesday.

“The vote at the U.N. yesterday is a great moment for us as citizens of the world,” the original email stated. “This is an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition. Having gained independence ourselves in this way, we are especially conscious of this.”

In their followup, the three rabbis wrote that they are “passionate lovers of Israel” and are “unequivocally committed to Israel’s security, democracy and peace.”

They also wrote that the original email was a letter from them and that the synagogue's cantor, board president, executive director and director of Israel engagement were listed mistakenly as signatories.

State terrorism report praises Israel, counts settler attacks as terror

The U.S. State Department’s annual report on terrorism said Hamas and Hezbollah continued to destabilize the Middle East, described Israel as a “resolute” partner in counterterrorism and listed as “terrorist incidents” extremist settler attacks on Palestinians.

“Both Hamas and Hezbollah continued to play destabilizing roles in the Middle East,” said the executive summary of the report for 2011, which was released on Tuesday.

Much of the summary, which highlights what the authors believe to be the report’s most salient points, was devoted to al-Qaida, and it led with the assassination last year by U.S. forces of the group’s founder, Osama bin Laden.

Turning to the Middle East, the summary said Hezbollah’s “robust relationships with the regimes in Iran and Syria, involvement in illicit financial activity, continued engagement in international attack planning, and acquisition of increasingly sophisticated missiles and rockets continued to threaten U.S. interests in the region.”

The report also stated: “Meanwhile, Hamas retained its grip on Gaza, where it continued to stockpile weapons that pose a serious threat to regional stability. Moreover, Hamas and other Gaza-based groups continue to smuggle weapons, material, and people through the Sinai, taking advantage of the vast and largely ungoverned territory.”

The country report on Israel was unusually robust in its praise, for the first time describing Israel as a “resolute counterterrorism partner,” and noting, for instance, Israel’s cooperation with the international community in tracking financing for terrorists.

The country report also unequivocally listed settler attacks on Palestinians as “terrorist incidents,” scrubbing distinctions in previous reports between “settler violence” and terrorism. It listed several arson attacks on mosques that are believed to have been made by settlers.

The report continued to again list Kahane Chai, an extremist settler group, as a designated terrorist group, as well as five Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and two affiliates of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The report listed four state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.

“Iran was known to use the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and terrorist insurgent groups to implement its foreign policy goals, provide cover for intelligence operations, and support terrorist and militant groups,” it said.

It also noted that Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups continued to headquarter in Damascus, adding that Hamas left toward the end of 2011 because of the surging unrest in that country.

In listing American victims of terrorism last year, the report noted that one American was killed in Jerusalem on Sept. 23 and one was injured in Tel Aviv on Aug. 19.

Opinion: Reconsideration of state aid to Jewish schools is welcome

For decades, the American Jewish community has debated the advisability, constitutionality and necessity of government aid to Jewish (and other faiths’) parochial schools. But with the United States still experiencing tough economic challenges, the American Jewish community finds its schools under greater financial stress than ever. This reality, alongside the solidification of court rulings upholding government aid programs and a current of broader education reform, has positioned 2012 to be a year in which we see signs of a sea change within the Jewish community over this perennial issue.

Since the mid-1950s, the majority view within the Jewish community has opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it diverts funds from the public schools, breaches the “wall of separation” between religion and state, and runs counter to the communal responsibility to support our own institutions.

On the other side, the Orthodox and other conservative segments of the community advocated for public sector support for Jewish schools. This admittedly minority camp contended that as a matter of economic fairness, citizens paying taxes that support local school budgets are entitled to some support in return; that First Amendment principles did not bar carefully crafted and religion-neutral state aid programs; and that in the absence of full communal support for our schools, resorting to state support was warranted.

In a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions rendered in the 1990s and 2000s, the constitutional question was clearly settled in favor of state support programs and against the “strict separationists.” The high court approved state-funded special education teachers in parochial schools, state-funded textbooks and technology, and more, culminating in the 2000 ruling upholding Cleveland’s school voucher program as constitutional. Under the program, publicly funded vouchers could be spent on parochial school tuition.

The liberal camp has also, essentially, lost the argument about the “diversion” of funds.  The historically political champions of the traditional public school systems—Democrats—are deviating from longstanding orthodoxy by strongly backing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately administered (and free from unionized teachers). Inner-city mayors and reform-driven governors are denouncing the social injustice of low-income children trapped in failing public schools and pursuing an array of initiatives to offer opportunity to these children. The debate line is no longer over whether to support “school choice” but simply how expansive that choice will be.

This leaves as the last argument standing the question of necessity, and in the context of the economy of the past five years, America’s Jewish day schools desperately require more support—and it is not within the community’s ability to provide it alone. Today, Jewish day schools (of all denominations) amount to more than a $2 billion enterprise annually, according to the Avi Chai Foundation.  A conservative estimate assesses annual scholarship awards at more than $500 million, and that is nearly twice the amount that was being awarded five years ago. Requests for scholarship showing no signs of abating.

If the Jewish community is going to fund its educational system by itself, we have yet to identify where the funds will come from, let alone the will to make the decisions to secure or re-allocate those funds. The need is clear and present.

And so we get to 2012 and several signs indicating a shift in the debate. One prominent sign is the essay recently published in The Wall Street Journal by Peter Beinart making the “Jewish case” for state funding for Jewish education.  While Beinart’s latest book featuring intense criticism of Israel generated a tidal wave of tough responses from Jewish organizational leaders and pundits, Beinart’s Wall Street Journal column received virtually no comment from the community’s liberal stalwarts.

A second notable sign of shift is the recent political debate in Louisiana in which a new and ambitious school voucher program was enacted into law—with the explicit endorsement of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans—making it the first federation in the country to embrace a school voucher proposal. This action in the Bayou State follows on the JCRCs of Baltimore and Greater Washington endorsements of legislation to create a Maryland state tax credit for contributions to school scholarship funds, and active support for analogous public support programs from Jewish federations in Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, where they are already in place.

The UJA-Federation of New York is the federation entity with the largest number of Jewish citizens and day schools within its jurisdiction, so it is a significant sign when it hires a new staffer into its Albany lobbying shop tasked with “day school advocacy,” as it did earlier this year.

Finally, a sign we see down the road is the upcoming convention of the JCPA that will launch a renewed examination of communal policy on the topic of government support for Jewish education.  JCPA, the umbrella entity for national and local Jewish organizations throughout the U.S., last “examined” this topic 15 years ago, but those of us who participated in that discussion thought it a sham, with rejection of all forms of state support a foregone conclusion. This time, with the economic landscape at hand and the federation entities directly participating in state aid programs, we have a hopeful sense that the position adopted by the broader community will not be reflexive and dogmatic but appropriately sensitive and nuanced.

As the Jewish calendar has turned from Passover toward Shavuot, we turn our attention from achieving Jewish freedom to understanding Jewish purpose. The fact that our ancestors’ exodus culminated at Sinai is a lesson to us that our central purpose is the transmission of Jewish knowledge and commitment. Today we do that best through Jewish schools, and we must ensure their viability to ensure the next generation. The permissibility and necessity of state support to make our school system viable are clear, and in 2012 we are seeing signs that we might indeed make this prospect a reality.

Nathan J. Diament is the executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

ADL again slams Santorum on church-state issue

The Anti-Defamation League once again reprimanded Rick Santorum for his advocacy of a church role in governing.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator vying for the GOP presidential nod, told ABC over the weekend that a landmark 1960 speech outlining church-state separations by then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy almost made him “throw up.”

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?” Santorum said. “You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?”

In a letter, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman and ADL National Chairman Robert Sugarman suggested that Santorum was misrepresenting the speech.

“The genius of the Founding Fathers was to find a way, with the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, to protect the new nation from the kind of religious persecution that had resulted from official state religions and religious wars in Europe,” the letter said.

It was the second time this election season that Santorum was rebuked by the group. In January, Santorum told a caller on a talk show that “we always need a Jesus guy” in the campaign, which the ADL rejected as “inappropriate and exclusionary.”

The 17th century hero behind the separation of church and state

From the vantage point of 2012, the state of Rhode Island is an afterthought, except perhaps for those who reside within its borders. It is small geographically and seems to lack influence in just about any realm imaginable.

Yet during the seventeenth century, Rhode Island became a colony that defined religious freedom in the future United States of America. Its main city, Providence, did not achieve that name by happenstance. The leading citizen of Providence, Roger Williams, created something special for religious minorities, a category that would include the Jews.

Roger Williams (1603?-1683), whose life story is told by John M. Barry in “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty” (Viking, $35), is more than a footnote to American history. Still, it seems safe to state that many Americans who cherish religious freedom and secular liberty know little if anything about his remarkable legacy. He defied the conventional wisdom, he placed his life in danger, because of his principles. Those principles are easy to take for granted today. During Williams’ lifetime, however, they constituted heresy.

Author John M. Barry fell into the category of mere passing acquaintance with Williams’ legacy until he fully realized Williams’ contribution almost by accident—or maybe through a sort of mysterious providence.

Previously, Barry had written books of popular (in a good way) and relatively recent history, tackling, for example, the devastating Mississippi River flooding of 1927. What became the Roger Williams biography started out as an examination of the United States in 1919, at the end of World War I. Barry planned to build the narrative around Billy Sunday, an evangelist preacher whose fervor spilled over into politics.

As Barry delved into Sunday’s life to examine the intersection of religion and secular governance, “the more I was drawn to that subject itself,” Barry recounts, “and specifically to the source of the debate.” Barry determined the origin revolved around Williams and John Winthrop, Puritan governor of the Massachusetts colony. Winthrop’s vision embodied “a city on a hill, with its authoritative and theocentric state.” The Puritans envisioned a Christian nation, favored by God.

Williams demurred. His vision, in Barry’s resounding words, called for “utter separation of church and state, and individual rights.”

Barry posits, persuasively, that the seventeenth-century disputes he delineates are relevant now. King James, who died in 1625, cited “reasons of state” to justify expanding his authority during what he perceived as a time of terrorism. The Justice Department of President George W. Bush asserted the same arguments during the opening decade of the twenty-first century. The king and the president implied both wisdom and power emanating from the Almighty.

In contrast, Williams’ mentor Sir Edward Coke and Williams himself “fought to establish the power of habeas corpus,” according to Barry, believing that every person’s home is that person’s castle. No king, no president, no divine intervention should breach the doorway to the home, where the right of the individual, where the freedom of conscience, should trump mainstream church authority and over state power.

Williams was a rebel according to the standards of his era, but he was no anarchist and no atheist. As Barry shows, Williams had “absolute faith in the literal truth of the Bible, with absolute faith in his own interpretation of that truth, with absolute confidence in his ability to convince others of the truth of his convictions.” Yet Williams would refuse “to compel conformity to his or anyone else’s beliefs.”

Trying to establish Rhode Island as a colony of tolerance, and Providence as its epicenter, could have provided Williams full-time duty on the North American continent. But he could not divorce himself completely from England, because the Parliament wielded fearsome power over the colonies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the most compelling extended passages in a wholly compelling book is set during 1644. Williams has made yet another arduous passage from Rhode Island to London hoping to solidify the future of the renegade colony. Powerful members of Parliament plotted against Williams, hoping to transfer authority over Rhode Island to the governor of Massachusetts.

“As to ‘toleration,’ the word itself seemed dirty…to Parliament,” reports the author. “It also seemed impossible. Where would one draw the line? Was toleration to be offered only those who agreed on all fundamentals of Calvinist theology? Was it to be toleration for the plethora of sects just beginning to emerge? That opened the way to chaos, error, and sin. Was toleration even to allow worship by Catholics, Turks, and Jews? That seemed utterly abhorrent. And atheists? That went beyond blasphemy. One shuddered at the idea.”

Williams was not a member of Parliament. But he could lobby to have his views heard. So that is what Williams did. Not only the fate of Rhode Island rode on the outcome—so, perhaps, would the fate of individual liberty in a new nation conceived because of tyranny back home in England.

Fortunately, Williams prevailed. Not easily, and he could never relax until his death.

Steve Weinberg is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

Q & A: Can Palestine become a U.N. member state?

The Palestinians have vowed to upgrade their U.N. status, either by seeking full United Nations membership for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank or recognition as a “non-member state.”

If the Palestinians ignore opposition from the United States and Israel and pursue full membership of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, the bid would likely fail because Washington would veto it in the U.N. Security Council.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on August 16 in Sarajevo that he would deliver the application to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at some point during the upcoming gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly session, which begins the week of September 19.

But it remains unclear whether the Palestinians will seek full membership, upgraded observer status or both.

Here are some questions and answers about the issue.


The Palestinians are U.N. observers without voting rights. The European Union is also an observer, while the Vatican is what is known as a non-member observer state. Neither the EU nor the Vatican has voting rights.


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he wants the world to recognize a Palestinian state at the General Assembly in September and support its admission to the United Nations.

U.S. President Barack Obama said last year he hoped a Palestinian state could be admitted to the United Nations by the time world leaders gather for the 2011 General Assembly.

That statement, U.S. officials say, was an expression of hope, not a call for a vote this year on Palestinian U.N. membership.

Israel is lobbying against the Palestinians’ U.N. bid. It sees the plan as an attempt to isolate and delegitimize Israel.

A number of European Union states, U.N. diplomats say, are looking increasingly favorably on the idea, largely due to frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and what they see as its recalcitrance over settlements and other issues holding up peace talks.


In addition to applying to become a full U.N. member state, which requires approval by the U.N. Security Council, the Palestinians could also seek upgraded observer status as a non-member state.

That is what the Vatican has and what Switzerland had before it joined the United Nations in 2002. Such status, U.N. envoys say, could be interpreted as implicit U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood because the assembly would be acknowledging that the Palestinians control an actual state.

The advantage of this option is that it would require only a simple majority of the General Assembly, U.N. diplomats say. Since around 120 countries have already recognized the state of Palestine to date, it would most likely win such a vote.

Although the United States, Israel and a handful of other states would likely vote against any Palestinian U.N. move, there are no vetoes in General Assembly votes. Dozens of nations, including many EU members, would likely abstain.

Upgraded observer status could bring benefits. If the Palestinians were to be recognized as a non-member state, they would be able to sign certain international treaties, such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which they cannot currently sign, some U.N. diplomats say. The possibility that the Palestinians could join the ICC is something the United States, Israel and others worry about.


Technically the United Nations does not recognize states. Individual U.N. members do that on a bilateral basis. In reality, however, membership in the United Nations is generally considered to be confirmation that a country is an internationally recognized sovereign state.


Countries seeking to join the United Nations usually present an application to the secretary-general, who passes it to the Security Council to assess and vote on. If the 15-nation council approves the membership request, it is passed to the General Assembly for approval. A membership request needs a two-thirds majority, or 129 votes, for approval.

A country cannot join the United Nations unless the Security Council and General Assembly approve its application.


In theory, yes. But as long as the United States is ready to use its veto to block a Palestinian request for U.N. membership, there is no chance of success.

Even if the Palestinians secured a two-thirds majority of votes in the General Assembly, there is no getting around the need for prior approval of the Security Council. According to the U.N. charter, membership in the United Nations “will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

If Washington changed its position and agreed to back a Palestinian U.N. membership bid, or to abstain during a Security Council vote, it would probably succeed.

Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman

Netanyahu: Israel could support Palestinian state before September under right conditions

Israel could support a Palestinian state before September under the right conditions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Thursday.

Addressing a Palestinian plan to bring the issue of an independent Palestinian state forward at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Netanyahu said many things could be passed by the UN.

“They could say that Bin Laden is the hero of mankind and pass that too…” Netanyahu said. “But the leading countries, like the US, and now Britain and France all say they expect those who want peace with Israel need to recognize Israel. This is elementary.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Bill Boyarsky: State budget crisis calls for action

If there was ever a time for Jewish parents to fight for Los Angeles public schools, this is it.

Legislators can’t agree on Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to have a special election to extend taxes scheduled to expire this year. “If we don’t get these tax extensions, it’s a dire emergency,” said Steve Zimmer, the Los Angeles school board member who represents the Westside and the West San Fernando Valley. Layoff notices have already been sent to more than 7,000 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers. If the voters don’t approve the tax extensions, those notices will, for the most part, be translated into firings.

This would be a devastating blow to Jewish families who have been engaged for many months in a campaign to persuade parents to send their kids to public schools. They have hosted parental meetings in their homes, arranged for school visits and formed support groups, all in the interest of persuading skeptical mothers and fathers that their children can receive a high-quality education in Los Angeles public schools and that these schools are safe.

Now, with the budget crisis, parents impressed by faculty during school visits might one day learn those teachers have been fired. 

“Reinvesting in public schools, particularly on the Westside and the West Valley, is still a fragile choice, still a leap of faith,” Zimmer told me. “People are positive, but it is fragile. So when you add the [budget] uncertainty, it makes the situation more precarious.”

Some people aren’t sitting back and taking it. 

At the Westside’s Temple Isaiah, a center for the back-to-public school movement, Rabbi Dara Frimmer told me congregants are learning the complex politics of the Sacramento budget mess and what will happen if Gov. Brown’s proposed tax extensions are not approved.

At the same time, they are examining the Los Angeles school district budget. This is a great idea. Get some smart accountants, tough lawyers and sophisticated political activists to take that budget apart. When it is time to cut, we shouldn’t accept the word of the school board or administrators at face value.

Although she is concerned about the cuts, Rabbi Frimmer said, “this only intensifies our commitment to public education — not just Jewish middle-class parents but all parents.”

At Hamilton High School, students, inspired by the young people of Egypt and Tunisia, used Facebook and e-mail to create a protest network after hearing of the layoff notices, which would hit their school hard. Among the many targeted cuts that would affect the school, major district-wide cuts are focusing on music programs, and Hamilton’s renowned Music Academy falls into that category. Students began work on a Friday and by Monday had 600 students at a rally and had persuaded — with about 100 e-mails — Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez to visit the campus. He wrote a terrific, supportive column. Continuing to work through the week, they organized a bigger rally outside the school on South Robertson Boulevard last Friday morning.

This is another great idea. The L. A. school district is traditionally afraid of student activism, and administrators, fearful of getting in trouble, tend to put it down, but, as others have found, it’s hard to put down a social network.

Still, political organizing hasn’t been easy, as this Hamilton dad wrote me:

“Several kids, including our son, were designated to speak to the school board on Tuesday. They were told to be there at 9 a.m. to ‘sign in.’ They were there by 8:20, signed in and were told to return at noon for the 1 p.m. meeting. They did as they were told. Sometime after they got back, they were told that they hadn’t filled out the necessary forms — forms that no one had mentioned to them before. As a result, they wouldn’t be allowed to speak. They missed a day of school, didn’t get to speak, but … they learned a lesson (although I’m not quite sure what it is) about dealing with the district bureaucracy.”

If the kids have the guts for a worthy fight, the adult Jewish community should, too.

Sure, it’s easy to ignore Sacramento. The budget crisis is confusing, ugly and messy. It’s more fun to rub shoulders with the glitterati at a presidential fundraiser or hear some well-known journalist or book author at another Westside political or cultural event for donors. No doubt about it, it’s more interesting to talk about Israel, Egypt or maybe even the Afghanistan war than to immerse yourselves in the tortuous details of the Sacramento legislative mill.

But we all have to turn our attention to Sacramento with e-mails, faxes and phone calls. If these lawmakers, terrified of losing, get enough static from constituents, they’ll listen. Republicans should tell those stubborn GOP legislators to drop their opposition to letting the people vote on taxes. Democrats can tell liberal legislators to ignore large contributions from public employee unions who are against the governor’s plan. They don’t understand, as Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote, that Brown “is just the type to turn on everyone if negotiations blow up. He’d probably propose an all-cuts budget that would cripple schools, eliminate many thousands of teacher jobs …”

Skelton knows Brown well. So do I. And it’s clear that time is running out for our public schools. As Jews, who value education more than most, it’s our obligation to take the lead in saving them. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Argentina joins Brazil in recognizing Palestinian state

Argentina has recognized a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, according to a note sent from President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to Mahmoud Abbas.

Kirchner on Monday sent the note to Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, announcing that her government recognizes Palestine as a free and independent state within 1967 borders and according to what the parties determined during the negotiation process.

“The recognition of Palestine as free and independent is part of a tradition of friendship and solidarity with the Palestinian people,” said a statement issued by Argentina’s Foreign Ministry.

The Palestinian Authority opened a diplomatic mission in Buenos Aires in 1996, and Argentina in 2008 established a diplomatic representation in Ramallah, the Foreign Ministry noted. In November 2009, Kirchner received Abbas on a visit to Argentina.

“Argentina ratified the irrevocable position for the right of Israel to be recognized by all and live in peace and security within its borders,” the ministry statement also said.

“Argentina´s decision to recognize the Palestinian state is part of the desire of the authorities to promote the negotiation process leading to the end of the conflict, and is motivated by the deep commitment to the coexistence of all peoples that is the deep conviction of all Argentinean society,” the statement concluded.

Brazil last week also recognized a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced in a public letter. The letter recognized what it called the “legitimate aspiration of the Palestinian people for a secure, united, democratic and economically viable state coexisting peacefully with Israel.”

The American Jewish Committee on Monday called the recognition of an independent Palestinian state by Brazil and Argentina a worrisome and counterproductive development.

“Circumventing the established peace process will only encourage the P.A. to unilaterally declare independence, a move that would undermine the prospect for durable peace that can only emerge as an outcome of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris.

“If Latin American countries truly want to support Arab-Israeli peace, they should be pressing President Abbas to return to the direct talks that were revived with U.S. assistance three months ago and suspended a few weeks later by Abbas,” he said. “Otherwise, however unintentionally, they are only further complicating an already complex situation and, for practical purposes, throwing a diplomatic monkey wrench into the process.”

Netanyahu OK with a demilitarized Palestinian state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would agree to a demilitarized Palestinian state.

in a major foreign policy address Sunday at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu also said the Palestinians to have a state must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.“It is impossible to agree on the principle of a Palestinian state without these” conditions, he said, according to an English translation provided with a video feed on the Bar-Ilan University Web site.

If Israel receives assurances that the two conditions are met, Netanyahu said, “we will be ready in the future” for a “demilitarized Palestinian state that exists alongside a Jewish state.” Such a demilitarized state, he said, could not import weapons, make pacts with enemies of Israel and would not be able to close its airspace to Israel.

Netanyahu also called for immediate peace talks with Palestinian leaders, without preconditions.

“We want both Israeli and Palestinian children to live without war,” he said, citing the root of conflict to the refusal of regional entities to accept Israel as Jewish state. “We must ask ourselves, why has peace not yet arrived after 60 years?”

Netanyahu, whose Bar-Ilan address was called a response to President Obama’s Cairo speech earlier this month in which the U.S. leader tried to reach out to the world’s Muslims, said he was prepared to meet with the leaders of neighboring Arab countries at any time to promote regional peace.

“We want peace in Damascus, in Riyadh, in Beirut, and also in Jerusalem,” he said.

In another portion of the speech that was closely watched at the White House, Netanyahu said that Israel had no intention of creating new West Bank settlements or expanding existing towns, but said there is a “need to allow residents to live normal lives.” The Israeli leader did not expound.

The United States has demanded all settlement activity be stopped, including “natural growth.”

Netanyahu added that settlers are not “enemies of peace” but “are our brothers.”

He reiterated his deep concern over Iran.

“The Iranian threat looms large in front of us, as we learned yesterday,” Netanyahu said, referring to the apparent re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has brought protests in the Islamic Republic over the fairness of the election.

“The greatest danger” to the region, he said, is the intersection between “radical Islam and nuclear weapons.”

The prime minister also said that Jerusalem must remain united and that the Palestinian refugee problem “must be resolved outside Israel’s borders.”

In an apparent response to Obama’s statement in Cairo that the creation of Israel was “rooted in the tragic history” of the Holocaust, Netanyahu emphasized that the “connection between the land of Israel and the Jewish people has lasted more than 3,500 years.”

“This is not an alien land, this is the land of our forefathers,” he said. “This is the homeland of the Jewish people, this is where our identity was forged.”

Awakening schmawakening, Darfur’s hope is grass-roots action

The Great Awakening


Am I the only reader who finds your celebration of the Rev. Rick Warren’s interviews with our presumptive presidential candidates very chilling (“The Great Awakening,” Aug. 15)?

The first nationally televised meeting of these candidates in a religious setting is frightening. It indicates again the growing erosion of our valued separation of church and state.

Is no one outraged by Rev. Leah Daughtry’s Faith Based Convocation before the Democrat’s Convention in Denver? Since when are Democrats the party of the religious? I thought Republicans had that franchise.

This is such pandering to religious voters right, left and center, it makes me wonder, where are our civil libertarians?

Please, wake up. Warren is not bringing the “Great Awakening.” He is dismantling our Constitution while too many of us sleep.

June Sattler
via e-mail

I almost always enjoy your column, and I did this one too. But to the best of my knowledge, including Internet research, Billy Graham is not “the late.” He is reported to be alive at age 89 and retired.

Michael Leviton
via e-mail

Dear Condi:

As your readers well know, Jewish World Watch has been at the forefront of Darfur activism in Los Angeles for the past four years. During those four years, our coalition of almost 60 synagogues has demanded from President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese President Hu Jintao and many others, immediate and significant action to stop the ongoing slaughter of innocents in Darfur, Sudan. We have done it through letters, phone calls, rallies, marches, and vigils. Those actions have led to incremental successes.

We are pleased to now have David Suissa participating in our calls for action, through his “Live in the Hood” column. (“Dear Condoleezza Rice,” Aug. 15)

We all know the frustration of continuing to watch this genocide enter its sixth year. In fact, last year we witnessed first-hand the suffering of the survivors by visiting the Darfuri refugee camps in Chad. The Darfur activist community knows that Sudan will not be stopped without significant international pressure, not only from the United States, but from China, Russia and, significantly, other African and Arab nations.

The only way to get this kind of international pressure is through persistent grass-roots movements, like ours, that make action in the face of genocide a domestic issue, with political consequences. It is the grassroots work that will, more likely than not, serve as the impetus for and foundation of whatever action our government takes in response to genocides like the one in Darfur.

We welcome Suissa’s letter and hope that it contributes to re-energizing our community in what may well continue to be a long road ahead.

Janice Kamenir Reznik
Co-Founder and President
Tzivia Schwartz Getzug
Executive Director
Jewish World Watch

In his column, David Suissa wrote movingly about his recent experience learning about the horrors of the Darfur genocide from a Darfuri refugee speaking at Beth Jacob Congregation. Suissa was so moved he felt compelled to write an open letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to intervene.

I couldn’t agree more with his passionate plea, but I was taken aback by his cavalier dismissal of the community-wide efforts that are so crucial to persuading policymakers here and at the United Nations. Suissa writes that when people asked what can be done, “The answers, of course, were weak. How could they not be? … typical activist ideas like ‘write a letter to your congressman’ (sic) ‘get on the Web and make a donation’ and ‘tell everyone you know’ are simply no match for this level of crisis.” I beg to differ.

While it’s possible that all it will take to move Rice to act is to hear from Suissa, those of us who have been working to end the genocide for years are in our turn skeptical of this strategy. I have the privilege of representing Temple Israel of Hollywood on the Jewish World Watch Synagogue Council, and we are among those thousands of activists who have been writing letters to our members of Congress, making donations and organizing community events and activities to tell everyone we know.

As someone who has been an advocate for civil rights for more than 25 years I know that success is not only difficult but a long-term proposition. Ending the genocide in Darfur is only possible if we are working on all fronts because this is what keeps the pressure on policymakers and leaders like Rice. It is our thousands of voices, letters and postcards that create an atmosphere in which it is impossible for Rice to turn away. Without them, it’s just Suissa’s voice crying in the wilderness, and while he’s both persuasive and important it’s hard to believe his column alone can do what all these other voices have yet to be able to accomplish!

Abby J. Leibman
Los Angeles

David Suissa’s open letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strikes a personal chord. As a member of the board for Jewish World Watch, I have struggled with similar frustrations throughout these long years of combating genocide in Darfur. The work to end the genocide is daunting to say the least — it is difficult to continue work when successes are small, infrequent and feel only slightly incremental.

Within the already daunting task of ending genocide, it is easy to discount a donation to refugee relief as a Band-Aid solution. But Band-Aids serve their purpose — they staunch bleeding while we wait for a doctor. Refugee relief work in Darfur is having a very real — and very essential — impact. Solar cookers are protecting women and girls from rape by reducing their reliance on firewood.

Water reclamation projects are teaching long-term skills of conservation and helping to irrigate much-needed vegetable patches. Backpacks filled with school supplies and hygiene items are giving children an opportunity to see a future as doctors, teachers and translators, not soldiers in rebel armies.

Relief work won’t end the genocide. We must certainly continue our education and advocacy work worldwide in an effort to bring long-term solutions to Sudan. We must continue pressure on our government and international players to implement these long-term solutions. And in the meantime, we must work to ensure that the people of Darfur stay alive, safe, and are able to live with dignity while the work to end genocide continues.

Joy Picus
Board Member
Jewish World Watch

David Suissa adds his voice to the chorus demanding that something be done to stop the genocide in Darfur. He advises Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “go to Darfur” and “make a stink. Knock a few heads. Expose the criminals…. Create an urgent global coalition to save the Darfurians.”

The criminals have already been exposed. A global coalition to do what? I am still waiting for a prominent Darfur activist to call for what would actually stop the killings: A U.S./NATO-enforced no-fly zone, and U.S./NATO peacekeepers who would shoot back if the janjawid attacked them or attacked the refugees.

Without these, the genocide will go on until the killers decide to stop. Let’s not pretend; let’s not fool ourselves.

Paul Kujawsky
Valley Village

Meet Harry Schwartzbart — defender of the First Amendment

Harry Schwartzbart proselytizes as hard as any Christian clergyman in this country.

He makes about 2,000 phone calls a year. He speaks two or three times a month at various houses of worship within a 100-mile radius of his Chatsworth home. And he books lunch or dinner engagements with any clergy member of any faith who will give him 90 minutes of his undivided attention.

To date, he counts more than 500 meals with individual priests, rabbis and ministers.

But Schwartzbart isn’t on a religious mission. Rather, he said, “I am determined to keep the United States from becoming a theocracy.”

To accomplish this, the 84-year-old retired Rockwell engineer and metallurgist consultant works tirelessly as president emeritus of the San Fernando Valley chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national education and advocacy organization of 75,000 members that “devotes 100 percent of its time and resources to church-state separation.”

The group meets quarterly at varying Jewish and Christian sites. At its most recent meeting on Jan. 28 at Temple Judea, the San Fernando Valley chapter featured as its guest speaker Nick Matzke, an expert in debunking “intelligent design” claims.

A member almost since its establishment in 1947, Schwartzbart did not become active until 1994, when Pat Robertson was “scaring the hell” out of him. At that time, he founded the San Fernando Valley chapter, which quickly became the largest and one of the most active of the organization’s 70-some local chapters.

Strictly a volunteer, he served as president until two years ago. Now, as president emeritus, he retains his position as the one-man membership committee — which he considers his most important duty — as well as the sole speakers bureau representative.

From the first meeting on Oct. 5, 1994, Schwartzbart’s single, unstoppable focus has been to make as many Americans as possible aware of what he considers the 16 most important words in the English language, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

While his success is difficult to measure definitively, he claims to have enlightened a significant number of people.

“I’m persistent as hell; I never give up,” he said, explaining that he calls himself Harry “Nase Shmate” Schwartzbart, translating the Yiddish as “wet rag.”
“Some of my very best friends won’t take my calls anymore,” he added.

He also laments that he has never succeeded in engaging any Orthodox rabbi in dialogue. The Orthodox, he said, primarily because of the voucher issue, side with the Robertson supporters.

Having discovered early on that his most useful tool is the telephone, Schwartzbart calls every person on his mailing list no less than once a year. The number has remained steady at about 2,000 names, with a turnover of about 5 percent each month.

A self-professed Luddite, Schwartzbart keeps all his contact information on 3-by-5 cards he arranges alphabetically in five long file boxes, meticulously logging every phone conversation, donation and even “do not call” request. His wife, Mary, backs up all the data on a computer.

“Harry is literally an organizational genius, and he was one even before anyone invented the Internet,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. Lynn frequently dispatches Schwartzbart to other parts of the country to help volunteers establish new chapters.

In addition to his phoning, Schwartzbart speaks as often as possible. He says he requires five hours to do his subject justice. He’s happy to talk that long or as little as five minutes.

Preferring to run a lean organization, he eschews fundraisers, but he does hold four general meetings a year. He also actively monitors Establishment Clause law violations and intervenes when necessary.

“Being a Jew” is Schwartzbart’s short answer to what motivates him to do this work, maintaining that any Jew who does not support separation of church and state is an “idiot.”

And while he admits to being raised Orthodox, he won’t discuss his theological views, claiming they are irrelevant to his work in Americans United, which counts in its membership a cross-section of believers of all faiths as well as nonbelievers.

Pressed further, he explains that he was the first in his family to be born in the United States. His parents left Ukraine, escaping political persecution, and settled with their four children in Altoona, Pa., in 1921. Schwartzbart was born two years later.

While the United States has had its share of fundamentalists and religious extremists throughout history, Schwartzbart believes that “the religious right has a degree of political power unprecedented in this country.”

He sees today’s hot-button issues as women’s reproductive rights, gay rights and the teaching of intelligent design. Additionally, sex, prayer in school and the flag remain continuing concerns.

Outside of Americans United, his only organizational commitment, Schwartzbart is devoted to his family. He has been married for 53 years and has three grown children.

Music is Schwartzbart’s avocational passion. In fact, he met his wife while playing viola in the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, where she played the violin. Until about 10 years ago, they played string quartets in their house at least once a week.

Additionally, Schwartzbart is a staunch Shakespeare buff. He reads some of the Bard’s work each day and has been diligently keeping a journal for the last two decades — one for each year — titled, “My Daily Shakespeare,” in which he enters quotations pertaining to historic or personal events.

Schwartzbart’s biggest worry is the future of Americans United in the San Fernando Valley, even though the current president is actively engaged.

“I am sorely afraid that when I am gone, the chapter will die,” he said.

In the meantime, showing no signs of slowing down, Schwartzbart intends to keep working on behalf of Americans United.

“There’s nothing that drives me harder. I do whatever I think it takes to help the cause,” he said.

For additional information on Americans United, visit the San Fernando Valley chapter at www.ausfv.org, where you can read Schwartzbart’s monthly commentaries, or the national organization at www.au.org.

JewsOnFirst.org Continues Fight Against Aggressive Christian Activities

Several months ago, activist Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak learned of a Jewish family allegedly forced to flee its Delaware town after protesting aggressive Christian activities in the public schools.

The Los Angeles rabbi is co-founder of JewsOnFirst.org, perhaps the only Web site exclusively devoted to the Jewish take on separation of church and state (and a counterpart to Christian efforts such as Leftcross.com). Its mission, according to the site: “Defending the First Amendment against the Christian Right, because if Jews don’t speak up, they’ll think we don’t care.”

One goal is to champion cases largely ignored by the mainstream press.

Thus Beliak zeroed in on the Delaware family — Mona and Marco Dobrich and their two children — who had filed a lawsuit along with a family known only as the “Does” about a year ago. Their complaint alleges that teachers preached Christianity, that Bible Club students received special privileges, and that a local minister prayed for one of the children to accept Jesus at her high school graduation, among other charges. The Dobrichs moved to Wilmington, Del., when the suit allegedly made them “the focus of hostilities from neighbors and local media,” Beliak said.

The rabbi and his JewsOnFirst co-founder, union activist Jane Hunter, promptly conducted extensive research on the case, including interviews with school officials and the Dobrichs’ attorneys. After they published their Web expose in June, The New York Times interviewed Beliak and Hunter for its own story, which ran on July 29. In the Washington Jewish Week, an Anti-Defamation League official praised JewsOnFirst for its “robust” amount of information on church-state issues.

Beliak and Hunter created the site after becoming alarmed by increasing efforts by churches to back political candidates. Last week’s site included articles with titles such as “Religious right powerhouses mobilizing for 2006 elections,” “New Jersey school district to approve pro-prayer ruling” and an e-mail petition on behalf of the Dobrichs.

Most of the conflicts take place in Bible Belt states, Beliak said, because “those areas present a more accurate picture of this country than cities like Los Angeles. Most of America is not comfortable with diversity.”

JewsOnFirst will monitor how Los Angeles churches use an upcoming California pro-life ballot measure to back candidates — because lending support to individual candidates violates religious institutions’ tax-exempt status, Beliak said.

“Jews understand that liberty must be constantly guarded, and where we see threats, we must mobilize,” he added.

Abbas-Hamas Showdown Looms

Three and a half months after fundamentalists swept to power in the Palestinian elections, the Islamicist Hamas and the secular Fatah are on the brink of a major showdown that could have far-reaching implications for Israel and the government’s plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian territory.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah seized the initiative in mid-May, by backing a call by Palestinian prisoners for a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders with Israel. In doing so, he forced Hamas to face up to the challenge of recognizing Israel or losing power. Abbas’ move also opened up the possibility of international pressure on Israel to negotiate on the basis of those borders.

Abbas’ move could also clear the way for ending the Palestinians’ diplomatic isolation and freeing the flow of much-needed international funds. Those funds were blocked in the wake of the Hamas government’s refusal to recognize Israel, accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renounce terror. But while the Fatah leader’s initiative could break the diplomatic logjam, it is fraught with danger.

Fighting between small groups of Hamas and Fatah members on the streets of Gaza shows signs of intensifying. Both sides have mobilized large forces in Gaza and the West Bank, and some Palestinian observers are predicting civil war.

Abbas’ call in late May for a national referendum on the prisoners’ document pushed the sides closer to the brink.

Yet despite the mounting tension, the Fatah-Hamas confrontation could still play itself out politically.

On Tuesday, Abbas was supposed to set a date for the referendum, but the Fatah executive deferred the deadline for agreement on the prisoners’ document for a “few days,” ostensibly to give the sides more time to negotiate. But the move was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation.

Even if Abbas eventually does set a date for a referendum, the outcome could still be a nonviolent political solution.

In one scenario, victory for Abbas in the referendum could bring Fatah back to power. A loss on the other hand, could see Hamas winning the presidency as well as maintaining control of Parliament and the government. Or, an 11th hour agreement between the two parties could see the formation of a national unity Fatah-Hamas government, with Abbas taking the lead in Palestinian diplomacy on the international stage.

Abbas’ determination to go through with his initiative and the way he has gone about winning support for it has gained him considerable prestige on the Palestinian street. He spent weeks traveling the Middle East getting Arab leaders behind the initiative. He also met with Jack Wallace, the American consul in eastern Jerusalem, to coordinate the move with Washington.

Often seen in the past as a weak, vacillating leader, afraid of confrontation, Abbas is now perceived by Palestinians as someone who could make a difference.

A recent poll showed that if the referendum goes ahead, Abbas would win with more than 80 percent of the vote. Since he embarked on his initiative, his own rating has gone from 51 percent to 62 percent, and that of Fatah from 34 percent to 45 percent.

Conversely, support for Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is down from 49 percent to 38 percent, and Hamas is down from 42 percent to 29 percent. The figures reflect Fatah’s newfound confidence on the street. The freezing of international aid is starting to bite, and many Palestinians blame the Hamas government for the nonpayment of salaries and the lack of food and medicine.

Heartened by the new mood, Fatah leaders have stopped their internal bickering and are rallying around Abbas. Fatah received an additional fillip last week when it won a sweeping 80 percent victory in student elections at the Gaza branch of Al-Quds University.

As tension mounts, both Fatah and Hamas have been trying to show their strength. Fatah, which wields considerably more firepower in the West Bank, has put large forces on the streets in Jenin and other West Bank cities. Hamas has beefed up its street presence in Gaza, where it is believed to be stronger.

Nevertheless, 10,000 mainly Fatah security personnel demonstrated in Gaza last Thursday against the Hamas government for its failure to pay their salaries.

Commenting on the street clashes and the general mobilization on both sides, dovish Fatah leader Kadoura Fares declared that he could see ”all the signs of civil war.”

Fatah leaders depict the prisoners’ document as an attempt to find the lowest common denominator for a Fatah-Hamas agreement that, once adopted, could get the wide international boycott of the Hamas government lifted.

“The referendum constitutes a lifeline to the Hamas government to rescue it from international isolation, but they are finding it difficult to grab hold of it,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top PLO official, declared.

For Haniyeh, the internal dilemma is that if he accepts the document, he could run afoul of the more radical Hamas leadership abroad; if he doesn’t, he could come in for criticism from the influential Hamas prisoners who signed it.

Whether or not he reaches agreement with Abbas on the document, Haniyeh opposes the referendum idea in principle. He sees it as a ploy to overturn the result of the January election that he won. Some Hamas spokesmen say ominously that the movement will not allow a referendum to be held, others that they will merely boycott it.

Either way the looming clash with Fatah, whether violent or political, could change the face of Palestinian politics.

So far, Israeli leaders are studiously avoiding comment on what they describe as an internal Palestinian affair. But the implications for Israel could be huge.

A clear-cut Hamas victory could accentuate questions about whom Israel would be handing back territory to after a unilateral withdrawal. An unequivocal Fatah victory could lead to pressure for a negotiated settlement. In the face of Palestinian developments, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have to draw on all his diplomatic skills to keep his unilateral withdrawal plan on the table.


Political Journal

Expatriates’ Vote

It’s long been more socially acceptable for Jews to immigrate to Israel than to emigrate out of it. Some Israelis feel that they’re abandoning the project of the Jewish state, not doing their part, not facing the same risks as those they leave behind.

So it’s somewhat understandable that Israelis living abroad have never been able to vote in Israel’s elections, even though other democracies make such allowances for their citizens abroad.

However, attitudes are shifting both here and in Israel. Between 150,000 and 300,000 expatriate Israelis live in the Los Angeles area, and some of them are pushing for the right to cast absentee ballots in Israeli elections. The Council of Israeli Community L.A., a group that organizes local cultural and political events for Israelis, is stoking the debate.

Israel “deals with the question of its own existence on a daily basis,” said Moshe Salem, president of the Tarzana-based nonprofit. So it is “in the interest of [Israel] to grant the Diaspora Israelis the right to vote.” Israelis in America “have a vested interest.” They “want to know what’s happening.”

Israel maintains about 350,000 Israelis on its voter rolls who can’t cast ballots because they live abroad.

“Granting voting rights would unite them around Israel, and means they will influence [non-Israeli] Jews around them,” Salem said.

He’s discussed the matter with Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Los Angeles Consul General Ehud Danoch, Israeli Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and several members of the Knesset. Salem reported that all have supported the idea.

Bills expanding balloting to overseas Israelis have been raised and defeated in several recent Knesset terms. In January, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he supported the notion; he even appointed a high-level committee to examine the details, the Jerusalem Post reported.

But earlier this month, opposition emerged from left-leaning Israeli parties, which fear introducing hundreds of thousands of absentee Jewish voters who are generally perceived to be more hawkish. The measure was defeated in the Knesset 25-23. It’ll be at least six months before the Knesset can take up the matter again.

Supporters point out that a growing Arab population could eventually eclipse Jewish voters, and Israelis from abroad could act as a counterbalance. Besides, many expats have served in the Israeli Defense Forces, pay taxes to Israel and intend to return some day.

A compromise that would honor individual rights ought to be within reach, given that numerous democracies around the world have successfully preserved voting rights for their citizens abroad. But any policy that could alter the balance of power between left and right and between Jews and Israeli Arabs is destined to be contentious.

“Everybody will be tuning in,” said Salem, describing the benefits of Israelis voting worldwide. “In a way, you’re affecting the entire Jewry outside of Israel. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is going to happen.”

Battling Over Message

The college campus has always been a central battleground for hearts and minds — and that includes education about Israel. In Washington, that battle is engulfing H.R. 509, legislation being supported by a range of groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

The bill would re-authorize decades-old grants that pay for foreign affairs education, while simultaneously creating a new advisory board to review the instructional content of programs receiving funds. The aim, at least among Jewish supporters, is to balance perceived anti-Israel bias with other perspectives.

“What we’re having now in the college campuses is basically professors using their desks as pulpits for political propaganda,” said Sarah Stern, director of the office of governmental and public affairs for the AJCongress. These academics, she said, are “looking basically at the entire world through the paradigm that America is a colonial hegemonic occupier, and Israel is the persona non grata of nations.”

The underlying argument is not new, as right-wing groups have railed for years about professors brainwashing students with leftist ideology. Common complaints feature professors (like Columbia’s Joseph Massad) supposedly berating a student about Israeli or Zionist “war crimes,” accounts that often turn out to be exaggerated or provoked.

Many professors and Muslim groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, vigorously oppose the proposed advisory board as undue interference in academic freedom, because although the board cannot hire or fire academics, its recommendations to the secretary of education would be influential.

Blurring Church-State Separation

A number of Jewish groups are lining up against an education-related measure that could allow the Bush administration to further blur the line of separation between church and state.

At issue is an amendment, HR 2123, which would allow faith-based groups to limit hires to people of their faith in federally funded Head Start programs. Head Start provides child care and education services to low-income families. Amendment supporters, most of them Republican, call the issue “charitable choice.”

Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, are vehemently opposed, saying that charitable choice deviously groups overtly sectarian churches and synagogues together with service providers like Jewish Family Service by classifying all of them as faith-based organizations.

“The rubric ‘faith-based’ is a ruse,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council. “They’re trying to use the term in order to get pervasively sectarian organizations into play.”

If the amendment passes, legislators who side with the Jewish groups might have to vote against the entire Head Start re-authorization, which means hurting the low-income families who benefit from the program.

The Jewish Seat

Seven American Jews have served on the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Make that eight — if you include Sandra Day O’Connor.

O’Connor, who announced her retirement from the bench last week, isn’t Jewish (you read it here first). But her legal opinions have had a profoundly positive effect on American Jewish life, which underscore the potential impact of the person President Bush nominates to replace her.

Appreciation is pouring in for O’Connor from streams of Judaism that rarely flow together. Orthodox groups have lauded her for her moderation, while more liberal denominations have praised her swing vote on issues dear to them.

“Justice O’Connor so often has been the decisive vote on the court in support of fundamental rights: religious liberty, civil rights, reproductive rights key among them,” wrote Robert Heller, chair of the Union for Reform Judaism’s board of trustees.

For many years, there really was such a thing as “the Jewish seat” on the nation’s highest court. The first Jew seated on the court was Louis D. Brandeis, nominated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. A native of Louisville, Ky., Brandeis graduated Harvard Law School at age 20, and soon established a reputation as a brilliant defender of progressive rights, championing trade unions and women’s suffrage, among other causes.

As Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a recent article on Jews in the court, Brandeis, who was not religious, was renowned for his ardent sense of ethics and social justice. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name for him was “Isaiah,” after the biblical prophet.

President Herbert Hoover appointed Benjamin Cardozo to the court in 1932. The descendant of an illustrious Sephardic family, Cardozo wrote extensively on the relationship of law to social change, defending most of the New Deal measures against the court’s more conservative justices.

Following Cardozo, who died after serving six years on the bench, Roosevelt appointed Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard Law professor who helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and defended labor unions, as well as anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.

Frankfurter adhered to Cardozo’s dictum that “the great generalities of the Constitution have a content and a significance that vary from age to age.” In a day and age when the term “activist judge” was a compliment, not a curse, these two men had a tremendous impact on the lives of less fortunate Americans.

President John F. Kennedy appointed Arthur Goldberg to the court in 1962, following Frankfurter’s retirement. Goldberg, the youngest of 11 children born into a poor immigrant family, was also a staunch defender of organized labor. A World War II veteran, he went on to serve as secretary of labor, U.S. representative to the United Nations and ambassador at large.

When Goldberg resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations., President Lyndon Johnson appointed Abe Fortas to the court. Fortas was also a champion of individual rights, a man who stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Cold War and argued successfully in Gideon v. Wainwright for the right to publicly funded counsel for indigent defendants.

The lone, liberal “Jewish Seat” became the plural “seats that happen to be filled by Jews” when President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg in 1993 and Stephen Breyer in 1994. There was no great political or social upside for Clinton in choosing a Jew, and certainly no downside he had to brave. During Brandeis’ tenure, by contrast, one justice refused to be in the same room with him.

Breyer, for his part, looks little like a crusader for the separation of church and state in the court’s two recent decisions on public displays of the Ten Commandments. Breyer voted with the strict separationists on the court in one case and with those favoring the display of religious symbols on public property in the other.

O’Connor, ironically, adopted the purer position, arguing for the separation of church and state in both cases, ending up once on the winning side and once with the losers in the 5-4 decisions.

Over her entire career, O’Connor, more than any other justice, was able to discern the middle ground in socially divisive cases. This mattered for the nation at large, but also for a Jewish community that is more and more split — perhaps not 50/50, but passionately so — on complex issues like school vouchers, religious symbolism, affirmative action and abortion. She was a justice who could fairly and firmly assert a consensus that helped bridge divides within our community and between Jewish Americans and others.

Consider her lucid opinion striking down the display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courtroom. “Those who would re-negotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question,” O’Connor wrote. “Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

It is a conservative argument in defense of a cause liberals hold dear.

Bush needs to put forward a name in the O’Connor mold. To paraphrase O’Connor herself, why trade someone whose judiciousness has served us so well, for someone whose rigid ideology may not?


O’Connor Played Key Church-State Role

The modern-day legal guidelines on how religion fits into the American public square have largely been the creation of one woman: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been fiercely divided for a quarter-century, with four justices opposing religious images in the public square and all federal money to religious organizations, and with four allowing for both.

At the center has been O’Connor, the first woman on the high court, who announced her resignation last week.

O’Connor’s view — allowing for religious funding but crafting strict rules for religious symbols — has tipped the balance in many of the church-state cases since she joined the court in 1981. It has been her analysis that has led to federal funding for school vouchers, but has limited public displays of religious symbols.

“She feels government money doesn’t make anyone feel unequal,” said Noah Feldman, a law professor of New York University. “Symbols have the capacity to make people feel excluded.”

Numerous interest groups, including a wide range of Jewish organizations, are expected to mobilize for and against President Bush’s choice to replace O’Connor, 75. The stakes are high, because a conservative jurist, which Bush has suggested he would nominate, likely would change the court’s stance on some of the issues the Jewish community cares about.

Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor, said O’Connor “single-handedly kept the wall of separation between church and state standing.”

“If she had not been on the court, we would have Christian prayer in the schools, Christian religious symbols displayed in public places,” he said.

On many issues, O’Connor split the difference between the court’s ideologues. Lawyers and activists say they often tailored briefs to court her vote, even including many of her previous opinions as background material, knowing she would be the swing justice on the issue.

“There was a joke among lawyers that you would just file briefs in her chambers and ignore the other eight justices,” said Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress.

O’Connor established an “endorsement test” on religious symbols in 1984, suggesting that the message a religious icon conveys is as important as the intent of those who crafted it.

“What is crucial is that a government practice not have the effect of communicating a message of government endorsement or disapproval of religion,” she wrote in Lynch v. Donnelly. “It is only practices having that effect, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that make religion relevant, in reality or public perception, to status in the political community.”

That analysis led to split decisions on the public display of nativity scenes. A cr?che by itself was seen as religious, but incorporating other religious and secular symbols changed the context and made the display more about a holiday season.

At the same time, O’Connor sided with conservatives and members of the Orthodox Jewish community, who argued in favor of permitting school vouchers and government funding for computer equipment to religious schools.

“The fact that she was a justice on the court while this evolution was going on meant it happened at a more moderate pace and more moderate tone than if you had a bloc of conservative justices,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

O’Connor also was a strong proponent of religious liberty, arguing that the government must show a compelling interest before infringing on religious exercise.

In one of her final opinions last month, O’Connor argued against the public display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses.

“It is true that many Americans find the commandments in accord with their personal belief,” she wrote in McCreary County v. ACLU. “But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”

Nathan Lewin, an Orthodox attorney who argued before the Supreme Court on numerous occasions, said O’Connor was the observant Jewish community’s best friend on the combination of the establishment clause and issues tied to the free exercise of religion.

“She is very understanding and sympathetic of the needs of religious minorities and the ability to display those needs publicly,” Lewin said.

O’Connor’s appointment was historic. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan, she became the first woman on the high court.

“She’s been a role model, a distinguished jurist and furthered the advancement of women through her decisions, personality and presence,” said Judge Norma Shapiro, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Court analysts say O’Connor made decisions based on fact, not ideology, and looked at each case on its merits. She also looked to ensure that the court did not move too quickly. She provided the swing vote in many of the civil rights reforms of recent years, including repealing sodomy laws and upholding the principle of limited affirmative action.

“She came in as a moderate conservative,” said Steven Green, former general counsel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “She quickly fell under the influence of Justice Lewis Powell, who was the preeminent fence sitter and saw issues in shades of gray.”

When Powell retired in 1987, O’Connor became the court’s center.

O’Connor’s moderate positions won her many fans in the American Jewish community. While she did not go as far as many liberal Jewish groups wanted on church-state cases, she was seen as preventing a total erosion of that constitutional separation.

“There’s no question there is more left of the high wall of separation because O’Connor was on the court,” Stern said.

Orthodox leaders also cite her as the reason that vouchers and other programs for religious schools are available today.

O’Connor traveled to Israel in December 1994 with the National Association of Women Judges. In Jerusalem, she read a psalm at the women’s section of the Western Wall and was so moved at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, that she nearly collapsed, said Judge Shapiro, who was on the trip.

“She’s not anti-religion, but she respects the separation of church and state,” Shapiro said.

Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas and staff writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.


Peace Possibility


After Mahmoud Abbas’ convincing victory this week in the election for Palestinian Authority president and the establishment of a new, moderate government in Israel, both Israel and the Palestinians now seem to have pragmatic leaders capable of making peace.

There is quiet optimism on both sides, with both leaders intimating that they will be prepared to make far-reaching concessions if the other side reciprocates with bona-fide peace moves.

But there are huge question marks over whether they will be able to pull it off.

The immediate difficulty is over what must be done to stop the violence. The two sides have very different approaches, and that could make for failure at the very first hurdle. Unless Israel and the Palestinians find a way to settle or circumvent differences over what constitutes a genuine end to violence, the international community may soon find itself having to judge which side is in the right.

Israeli officials say the United States will back them. But they fear that most of the Europeans are likely to support Abbas.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s internal political standing was strengthened Monday with the establishment of a new national unity government. Sharon will have new flexibility to pursue his Gaza disengagement plan with the unity coalition, which brings the Labor Party and United Torah Judaism together with his own Likud Party.

In addition, the leading opposition in the Knesset, which voted 58-56 to approve the government, has made clear that it, too, will back his plan.

On Tuesday, Sharon called Abbas to congratulate him on his victory Sunday. Abbas won 62 percent of the vote in his effort to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died in November, as the president of the Palestinian Authority. According to Israel Radio, Sharon and Abbas agreed to stay in contact and to meet in the coming weeks.

In outlining the Israeli position toward the Palestinians, Sharon has made clear that Abbas must disarm recalcitrant terrorist groups before substantive peace talks can begin. But Abbas said he hopes to achieve a cease-fire without confronting the militias, and that should be enough to get negotiations restarted.

Sharon aides retorted that unless there is a sea change on the Palestinian side, a cease-fire, even if achieved, will not last. Therefore, they said, Israel will not re-engage in peace talks based on the internationally approved “road map” peace plan unless the Palestinians take steps to ensure that violence does not flare up again.

Those steps include collecting terrorist weapons, ending incitement against Israel and instituting key governmental reforms.

A senior Israeli official told JTA that Sharon sees a cease-fire that does not entail disarming of the militias as a dangerous trap, because then, if the Palestinians don’t get what they want at the negotiating table, they simply can revert to terror.

“Israel wants to take terror out of the negotiating equation,” he said. “Unless the terrorist militias are disarmed, it’s like negotiating with a pistol on the table.”

The official said the road map incorporated proposals made by two former U.S. mediators, George Tenet, who tried to negotiate security arrangements between the two sides in 2001 when he was CIA director, and Anthony Zinni, who served as a U.S. peace envoy in 2002. The proposals, which outline specific steps to crack down on terrorists, stipulate how many weapons have to be collected every day.

“A cease-fire can’t be a substitute for action against the terrorist infrastructure,” the official said.

The official also emphasized the importance of Palestinian governmental reforms, arguing that they are essential to enable the Palestinians to control terror.

“For example, if they don’t carry out legal reforms, they won’t be able to try terrorists,” he said. “And if they don’t build jails, they’ll have nowhere to put them.”

Although Abbas, like his predecessor Arafat, shows little willingness to tackle the militias head on, there is no denying that there is a new mood on the Palestinian side that could lead to progress. The buzzword among Palestinians is “change.” There is a widespread belief that change is necessary and possible.

In his victory speech, Abbas spoke about the “struggle ahead,” but that struggle was not in confronting Israel, or, in an Arafat-like vein, in sending “a million martyrs to Jerusalem.”

Rather, Abbas said, the big task would be to build a Palestinian state in which people could live in security.

“There is a difficult mission ahead: To build our state, to achieve security for our people,” he said.

The mission, he said, means giving “our prisoners freedom, our fugitives a life in dignity, to reach our goal of an independent state.”

Abbas’ strategy, it seems, will be to get the international community to press Israel to make concessions. He will try to convince Palestinian radicals that diplomatic pressure by the international community is likely to be far more effective than Palestinian military pressure ever was or could be.

The key to future progress could lie in how he goes about drumming up this pressure. He could simply aim for a cease-fire and avoid any further reform.

But, Israeli pundits noted, there is a lot of talk on the Palestinian side about state-building, reform and putting an end to the prevalent chaos. One of the ways to do that would be to cut the number of armed Palestinian organizations from 14 to three and place them under a single command, as the road map demands.

Abbas would not necessarily disarm the militiamen, but rather persuade them to join one of the three new legitimate forces with their weapons. If he succeeds — and that’s a big if — it will be extremely difficult for Israel to go on claiming that he hasn’t carried out his part of the road map reforms.

For their part, the Palestinians are demanding that Israel lift roadblocks, release prisoners and freeze building on Jewish settlements. They say they need these gestures to persuade the Palestinian people that their new peace-oriented policy is getting them somewhere.

Abbas has said he is afraid Sharon may “let him down” again, the way he did when Abbas was prime minister in 2003, by failing to meet Palestinian expectations for wholesale prisoner releases. Israeli leaders are signaling that they don’t intend to make the same mistake again.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he is ready to hand over West Bank cities to Palestinian security control as soon as Abbas says he is ready. And Sharon said he intends to meet Abbas as soon as possible to discuss security issues.

Clearly, if there is a breakdown, neither side wants to be blamed for it.

Both the United States and Europe have indicated that they will be ready to help the Palestinians economically and to aid them in carrying out security and governmental reforms. But whereas President Bush made it clear that U.S. aid would be contingent on the Palestinians fighting terror, combating corruption and instituting democratic reforms, the Europeans have not laid down any conditions.

For now, even if the Palestinians don’t stop the terror altogether, Israel is likely to try to coordinate its planned unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank with them. The question is what will happen after that. If the Palestinians don’t fight terror, Israeli officials said, Israel will simply “park” along the new lines and stay put for as long as necessary.

But if they do fight terror, the sky could be the limit.

“They will find Israel ready to do things that only a short time ago seemed totally out of the question,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared in a recent TV interview.


Has the State Got a Proposition for You!

The wind grows colder, the days shorter and a 165-page, gray book of propositions arrives in everybody’s mailbox. Welcome to the election season — for Californians.

In national politics, California has been mostly ignored by both presidential candidates as a foregone conclusion. There is hardly a single close congressional race in the state. Between war in Iraq, violence in Israel and the swing states to the East, California is not on the agenda in Washington.

But to California voters, the one-inch-thick volume of propositions is a huge chance to reshape state government. Jewish leaders and activists are staking out their positions on a few of the 16 ballot initiatives.

Prop. 71, in particular, enjoys more open Jewish support than any other measure on the ballot this fall. It would authorize the state to sell $3 billion of bonds to finance research on embryonic stem cells, which could possibly help provide cures for such chronic diseases as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Jewish support for Prop. 71 includes Rabbi Janet Marder, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism; Rabbi David Ellenson, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion president; Hadassah; the Women’s Zionist Organization of America; and others.

“Jewish tradition strongly encourages scientific research, including the use of stem cells, to find new cures for diseases,” wrote the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which also supports Prop. 71, in its proposition policy statement. “If such cures were found, millions of lives could be saved, and health-care costs could be cut by billions of dollars.”

After pressure from religious conservatives several years ago, President Bush imposed strict limits on embryonic stem-cell research that uses federal dollars, requiring all work to be done on only a handful of existing cell lines and with only a trickle of funds. That prompted Californians to collect over a million signatures to put Prop. 71 on the ballot.

But interest must be paid on bonds, and the $3 billion Prop. 71 bonds could actually end up costing about $6 billion.

“I am a very strong supporter of stem-cell research, but I don’t think that issuing a $3 billion general obligation bond is a fiscally responsible measure at this point in time,” said Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Granada Hills).

Supporters say that making California the world’s leader in stem-cell research would create jobs and tax revenue.

In other financial matters, Proposition 1A would greatly limit state power over local property taxes and force Sacramento to reimburse local governments anytime it imposes a new rule or regulation.

“If we funded state government properly, we wouldn’t have to guarantee this funding, but when budgets are in bad shape [the state] steals from local government,” said Howard Welinsky, former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and a longtime Democratic activist.

“Imagine yourself as the mayor of a city,” Welinsky said. “You don’t know on July 1 what your revenue is until the state finishes its budget deliberations — and sometimes they wait until August to figure this out. So how are you going to manage your resources?”

Welinsky called the state budget “woefully underfunded” due to low taxes (held over from the boom years of the 1990s) that Republicans have refused to raise.

Though Republicans say that Democrats’ runaway spending is actually to blame for the state’s budget problems, both parties are supporting Prop. 1A’s ban on the state’s grab of local funds. Some opposition to Prop. 1A has questioned whether local government spends money more responsibly than the state.

Several of the propositions on the ballot are directly related to California’s faltering health-care system. Prop. 63 would impose a 1 percent surcharge on state income taxes for those earning more than $1 million a year. That money would go directly to county mental health services.

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee in Sacramento, is one of Prop. 63’s biggest supporters. He’s called it an opportunity to fix the broken promise California made to its counties in the 1960s, when the state emptied its mental health hospitals.

But why tax only the very wealthy?

“In a perfect word, or even a better world, this is not the way to fund government,” Steinberg told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Opponents say depending on such a narrow tax base to fund partly effective programs is too risky. But supporters point to the hundreds of thousands of Californians who are either homeless or in prison today, because they could not get the mental health services they needed.

Another health-care measure, Prop. 67 would add a 3 percent surcharge on telephone use — both land line and cellular — mainly to reimburse California hospitals for the care they provide to poor patients.

About 70 hospitals have closed in California over the past decade, including six in Los Angeles County, partly due to uninsured patients needing expensive emergency care.

“If a nearby emergency room closes, the extra time it takes for an ambulance to travel to a more remote facility could literally mean the difference between life and death,” the Progressive Jewish Alliance wrote.

Richman opposes Prop. 67, calling it a Band-Aid solution. “Half the hospitals in the state of California are losing money because of uncompensated care,” he said. “I think it’s critical that we address the fundamental issue of the uninsured.”

Richman, for his part, is most passionate about supporting Prop. 62, the “modified blanket” primary. It would change California’s electoral system so that only the top two vote-getters from a district in any election — House of Representatives, Assembly, State Senate, etc. — could run in the general election.

After a primary election, each party is currently guaranteed a spot for its own top vote-getter in the general election. Prop. 62 would change that by putting the emphasis on the top two candidates, regardless of party. That means a Democrat could run against another Democrat in the general election or a Republican against a Republican.

“It will result in representatives in both Sacramento and Washington who are more moderate and will work to solve problems with common sense solutions,” Richman told The Journal, adding that the power of the parties today pushes candidates to the ideological extremes.

However, opponents of Prop. 62 claim that it will simply allow independently wealthy candidates to buy political power. Under the current system, challenging an incumbent for either federal or state office is difficult, even with a slew of money, because there are so many other candidates that split the vote.

Under Prop. 62, though, a wealthy challenger who manages to place second in the primary would have no other competition to worry about except the incumbent and could bring all his money to bear in the run-up to the general election. Groups such as Common Cause oppose it, along with both major parties.

Other propositions on the ballot include Prop. 66, which would limit the “three strikes” law to violent crimes; Prop. 64, which would restrict lawyers’ abilities to sue corporations; and Props, 68 and 70, the Native American gambling initiatives.

“It’s always hard to say what’s a Jewish issue,” Welinsky said.

This November, California Jews can decide for themselves.

Proposition 71 will be among the issues discussed at “A Jewish Perspective on Stem Cell Research,” with leading rabbis and doctors, Oct. 19 at Temple Beth Am. Free. For more information, call (310) 652-7353.

Vote Yes on 57, 58: They Will Ease Crisis

It certainly is an unusual situation, but we Republicans are encouraging you to vote to increase the debt of the state of California, and we are doing it with a straight face.

As you know, Proposition 57 is asking Californians to commit to a bond issue of $15 billion. This commitment will allow our state budget to be stabilized, so that we can begin the process of moving forward.

If you study the state budgets over the last few years as I have, you would see that we have had a deficit at the end of each year that keeps getting larger each and every year. Even when revenues were perceived to be at a peak, we were outspending those revenues. The state budget began each year in the hole that just got deeper as the months went by.

Now we have a twofold problem. We must deal with the backlog created from prior years and try to balance this year’s budget, where expenses still are outstripping revenues. Proposition 57 will allow us to focus on eliminating the current budget imbalance without the draconian past debt facing us.

As it is, we will face serious cuts in our state budget. The growth in expenditures will have to be eliminated and actual cuts in important programs will have to be made.

As much as some of us would like to effect the cuts now that are necessary to erase this debt, we have come to the conclusion that it would significantly harm our state’s economy. This would stifle the immediate economic growth we need to reach budget equilibrium.

This new debt is not going away. That is understood. We are going to have to pay it back over the next decade. It will be in a fashion that will allow our legislators to craft a budget that will not start wallowed in debt before the opening discussions begin. By our good fortune, this debt will be financed at today’s very low interest rates.

The question then becomes how do we prevent this disastrous situation from re-occurring. We must pass the companion proposition — No. 58. It specifically makes it illegal to create any future bonds to finance a budget deficit again. It requires the Legislature to balance the budget.

Proposition 58, in addition to requiring a balanced budget each year, establishes that there must be a budget reserve in case projected revenues fall short. This is an important part of the measure.

A year in advance, some very smart people sit down and project what the revenues are going to be for the next 12 months for the world’s sixth largest economy. As smart as they are, it is a Herculean task, where it is easy to be off a billion dollars or more. This reserve will recognize that projections are only projections, and we should provide a cushion for dealing with the inevitable changes.

These new budget requirements can only be deviated from when there is a fiscal emergency upon which both the governor and Legislature agree. Some would say that a balanced budget should be locked in stone.

Those feelings are certainly justified after the dismal performance of the last few years. Once we divorce ourselves from those feelings and look at the budgeting process on a long-term basis, it becomes easier to see that this is a necessary clause that allows our elected officials to act responsibly, when a true disaster happens. If, God forbid, another earthquake occurs matching the damage caused by the Northridge quake, we would all want our leaders in Sacramento to do what is necessary to return our lives to normal.

These are the reasons why a broad spectrum of the political and financial universe is supporting both Proposition 57 and 58. It is a reasoned plan of action.

There may be alternative plans that seem good, but this one is worked out and ready to go. Let’s give it a chance and make judgment about its success after we see the full effects.

There are many important votes to cast on March 2, but none is more important for the future stability of our state than to vote yes on Proposition 57 and 58.

Bruce L. Bialosky is the Southern California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Bill Tackles Life Insurance Blacklist

New York state legislators are trying to prevent insurance companies from blacklisting travelers to Israel so that they cannot obtain life insurance coverage.

Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York Assembly, and Assemblyman Peter Grannis unveiled a bill Jan. 15 that would bar state insurance firms from denying life insurance to anyone who has traveled to Israel.

"I don’t know what Israel travel means: Is it risky lifestyle?" Silver said. "Does this smack of anti-Semitism? Does it smack of participation in an Arab boycott?"

Their move came in response to a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency report that several major insurance companies around the country are refusing to issue life insurance policies to applicants who recently have visited Israel or, in some cases, to those who plan to travel to Israel or 27 other nations for which the State Department has issued a travel advisory.

The New York bill is aimed solely at insurers that "discriminate" against those who already have been to Israel, Silver said, in part because he has not heard of policy applications asking about future travel plans.

Several top insurance companies, including Allstate, State Farm and TIAA-CREF, recently said that they won’t underwrite life insurance policies for people planning to visit Israel or other U.S.-designated hot spots, because they consider such travel too high-risk.

Meanwhile, a young public relations professional in Washington reported that Fidelity Investments denied his otherwise trouble-free application for insurance, because he had visited Israel in 2002.

Officials with Jewish organizations said they had heard of similar cases over the past year. They said the story sparked yet more reports of recent rejections of Jews who had gone to Israel.

"After the story broke, other people told us about it, but they’d never talked about it because they were embarrassed," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Hoenlein could not say how many people complained but said they were all from New York. Silver said he also received three complaints. At a recent news conference, the legislator introduced one such case, that of Dennis Rapps of the Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs.

In the wake of the report, Hoenlein approached Silver, who in 1996 had introduced similar legislation when the New York-based Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. denied life insurance to a senior member of the Orthodox Union (OU) who often visited Israel. In that case, Metropolitan scrapped its policy, and the legislation never reached a vote. But Silver and Grannis’ spokesman, Peter Newell, said they expect the current bill to easily win support in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

Silver also said he would bring the bill to other state insurance commissioners and the National Conference of Insurance Legislators in hopes that the New York bill can serve as a model for other states.

Hoenlein and senior officials of other Jewish groups said they would welcome such national attention, in part because they fear insurance red-lining could threaten U.S. travel to Israel at time when the Jewish State can’t afford a further drop in tourism.

"Our community is committed to tourism to Israel, and no one should have to suffer this kind of discrimination," said Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs and communal relations for the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs in Washington.

If such denials "are more widely imposed," Hoenlein said, "people are not going to risk not getting life insurance by going to Israel."

Sarina Roffe, director of communications for the Jewish National Fund, reported that she also was a victim of the boycott on hot spots. Roffe said she recently attempted to switch her life insurance policy with John Hancock Insurance and Financial Services but was rejected, because she had visited Israel within the past two years.

"Within 20 minutes, my agent called and said, ‘You’re out,’" she said. "You just don’t think of Israel as an extreme place. You just don’t think it’s going to affect you."

The agent also told her that "no one" in the insurance industry is "writing policies for anyone who has been to Israel," Roffe said.

Accord Allure

What I think about the Geneva accord is what generations of Jews have thought about getting a doctor’s second opinion: it couldn’t hurt.

I was surprised at how many people this week asked me whether I thought the accord was good for Israel. Surprised, mainly, that they would think an independent peace initiative declared at a press conference in Switzerland could actually doom the Jewish State.

The accord — negotiated over two years in secret talks between Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies and Palestinians with ties to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — were signed with great international fanfare Monday, Dec. 1, in a ceremony in Switzerland emceed by actor Richard Dreyfuss (see story, p. 18).

Although the bulky report goes into substantially more detail than other Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives now circulating, its broad outlines are hardly revolutionary to anyone familiar with the history of American-backed peace efforts in the region.

As worked out by teams led by Israeli opposition leader Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, the accord calls for two neighboring, independent states, each with its capital in Jerusalem; the evacuation of most Jewish settlements; and a limit, set by Israel, on the number of Palestinian refugees who can settle in Israel. Israel would compensate Palestinians in land for the few settlements that would remain, and in money for Palestinians not allowed to return. Palestine would have sovereignty over the Al Aksa Mosque and the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. Jews could visit the Temple Mount, but not pray there. Israel would have sovereignty over the Western Wall, and an international force would oversee the whole area.

As ideas for a future accord, these aren’t bad, and they certainly aren’t final. But supporters of the accord should temper their enthusiasm. While Palestinian negotiators received the tacit support of Arafat, his waffling in the days leading up to the ceremony should remind everyone that this is a man, to paraphrase former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, far more comfortable with the rhetoric of revolution than the reality of state building. There is little reason to think he won’t undermine the promise of Geneva as he did Oslo.

Opponents to the accord, on the other hand, should weigh their concerns against the status quo: the hundreds of innocent Israelis lost to violence, the country’s economic slide, the cost of doing more of the same. These costs become even more inexplicable when you take into account the fact that Sharon has already committed to the inevitability of a Palestinian state.

The accord, like a handful of similar initiatives, is the result of a leadership vacuum. No serious peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have taken place since the start of the most recent Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Meanwhile, 910 Israelis have been killed.

Sharon seems to be following the strategy of former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: don’t do anything until you’re absolutely forced to.

The security fence his government is now building between Israel and the Palestinian territories is a prime example. Facing strong opposition from the right, he dithered for months until a strong centrist grass-roots voice forced his hand. Now the fence is going up, going left, right or straight across the 1967 borders, depending on who is pushing Sharon harder: the American government, the Israeli right or the Israeli center.

The Geneva accord is also, to some extent, forcing Sharon’s hand. The fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell has defied some powerful (and powerfully misguided) pro-Israel activists in meeting with accord negotiators is a sign that it is time for Sharon to take some action.

"If Sharon is going to step away from Shamir’s strategy it will make history," an Israeli official told me. "If not we’re in deep s–." There is good reason to believe that Sharon will make some moves. Even Sharon’s opponents do not view him as an ideologue. He is a former general committed to Israel’s strategic security, and a politician with a keen sense of the Israeli center. At the end of the day, it will be these forces that push him toward action.

That is why a more important date in Israel’s history may turn out to be not Dec. 1, but Dec. 18. That’s when Sharon will go before a party economic convention and speak — some analysts say — of unilateral moves his government will take toward alleviating the Palestinian crisis. The moves may include withdrawal from some of the more remote settlements and other overtures in the Palestinian direction. They will convince some Palestinians that movement is possible, and the American administration that the path to peace is not road blocked in Jerusalem.

Recall Golus

As recall fever is sweeping the state, a number of cars in the Pico-Robertson and Fairfax neighborhoods are sporting bumper stickers that say “Recall Golus.” Who is Golus exactly, you ask? Is it Gray Davis’ middle name? The name of the 136th candidate on the ballot?

The stickers, which Rabbi Shimon Raichik of Chabad of Hancock Park produced, are actually a call for the Messiah to come. Golus is the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word galut, meaning exile, as in the state of being for the Jewish people before the Messiah comes and redeems us all to Israel.

If Golus is recalled, then the entire state of California will be transported to the Holy Land, and we won’t have to worry about a budget crisis, Davis’s lack of personality or unsavory Arnold Schwarzenegger interviews — which definitely makes recalling Golus something worth thinking about.

You Snooze, You Lose

This is the opposite of hypnosis. I am going to write a word, and you are not going to fall asleep. The word is, Sacramento.

For most of us, state politics function as a kind of conversational snooze button. It’s hard enough to get people involved in the police and pothole issues of municipal governance. It is somewhat easier to keep their interest when it comes to national and international news. Those meaty items play out on the front pages and CNN. But the state is neither milk nor meat, and when the governor strikes so many citizens as pareve — the personification of all that is dull and bureaucratic somewhere to the right of San Francisco — no wonder we tune out.

In the best of times, this arrangement serves both state politicians and their public well. We send them a chunk of money each April 15, then — talk about a blank check — let them do what they will.

But these are among the worst of times, and our ignorance is no longer so bliss.

The state budget is facing a projected $38.2 billion shortfall, and Gov. Gray Davis’ plan to cut spending and increase revenue will have far-reaching effects on our state and our lives. Elementary and higher education, health care, senior services — every neck is on the chopping block. And, conversely, every hand is looking for a pocket: sales tax increases, bond floats of dubious efficacy, car fee hikes.

"It’s a mess," confirmed Assemblyman Keith Richman, the Jewish doctor-turned-Republican legislator. "But it certainly isn’t dull."

I ran into Richman at the Sacramento airport this past Tuesday. He was returning to his district, which encompasses the North San Fernando Valley and most of Simi Valley. I was returning from a visit to the Jewish Public Affairs Committee’s (JPAC) annual foray to the capital. Each year, JPAC organizes informed Jewish activists to converge on legislators and educate them on issues of communal concern.

This year, many participants noticed a drop-off in attendance. About one-third of the participants, who come from Jewish federations, Jewish Community Relations Committees and other Jewish organizations from across the state, were high school and college students. Many others were staff members of Jewish organizations. That left a dwindling number of what Democratic activist Howard Welinsky called, "the influentials," caring volunteer advocates with the money and/or clout to grab a politician’s attention.

Welinsky maintained that the drop-off in participation doesn’t lead legislators to think that Jews no longer care, but others claimed it did. The deeper question is why the trend toward disengagement.

One reason may be a sense that the die is cast, at least as far as this budget cycle is concerned.

"The governor told us there’s no money," said one activist with convincing finality. "There’s no money."

Another reason may be a sense that the capital is the Vegas of politics — what happens in Sacramento stays in Sacramento — and the arcane maneuverings of the Assembly and Senate don’t touch our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth, Richman said. Deep cuts in public health care and public education may not affect all of us directly, but they will have enormous consequences on the larger society to which we belong.

Term limits and redistricting haven’t exactly sparked citizen involvement either. The former makes it difficult to build and nurture relationships with representatives, while forcing out many experienced and effective legislators. The latter makes politicians more dependent on their respective party leadership for ensuring primary victories. The result is a deeply partisan legislative branch that rewards party loyalists and punishes centrists.

"You’re always worried about being outflanked by your extremists," Richman said.

When the assemblyman even suggested the idea of supporting some kind of limited tax or fee increase as a way to offset the deficit, he received a hammering from more-Republican-than-thou talk radio hosts up and down the state. It’s no wonder that, as the California Voter Foundation discovered, "The state’s population is constantly growing while at the same time the percentage of voters who affiliate with the two major parties declines."

A pox on both their houses.

It’s also no wonder that so many Jewish voters, who tend toward the pragmatic center, are turned off by Sacramento. That’s even more of a shame, because, as California’s ethnic populations increase, Jewish voting — to the extent it happens in a bloc — can be even more effective. A Los Angeles Times poll found that in the statewide 2002 elections, non-whites, whose registration numbers are increasing, voted in smaller numbers than in previous gubernatorial elections. White voter turnout increased, and Jews make up a disproportionate percentage of that bloc. What that means is that if Jewish activists choose to use their leverage, they can be effective now and in the foreseeable future.

At a meeting with a handful of Jewish community activists this past week, one assemblyman was openly disdainful.

"This crisis has been two years in the making," he said. "Where were you two years ago?"

More to the point, where are we now?

U.S. Spending Ignores Domestic Deficits

Write the word "fiscal" and know that a hefty proportion of your readers will find something else to read. So, let’s talk about money instead.

Specifically, about the money the states don’t have.

The only thing you need to know by way of background is that almost all states are required, by their own laws, to balance their budgets. They cannot — as the federal government can — spend more money than they have. So when they find that their expenses are greater than their revenues, they must either cut their expenses or raise their revenues or do both.

When the states enacted their 2003 budgets, they had to deal with an estimated shortfall of $50 billion. That estimate turned out to have been about $25 billion light, which means that the states must now find another $25 billion.

And then comes 2004, with an additional $75 billion in new cuts or new revenues required. So, over a two-year period, there is a total of $150 billion in gaps that by law must be closed.

Plainly, most Americans have no way to process such numbers. Here’s one way to think of them: Aggregate state spending runs about $500 billion a year.

So we’re looking at a shortfall of some 30 percent. And you don’t find the money to cover that kind of shortfall without cutting — slashing, really — core programs and/or raising taxes. Not unless the federal government is prepared to come to your aid in a massive way — which this federal government is most assuredly not.

As it is, the federal government has itself moved from very substantial surpluses to a two-year deficit of $732 billion. On April 24, President Bush said, "This nation has got a deficit because we have been through a war."

But when you add up all the costs of the war — including homeland security, Sept. 11 recovery, Afghanistan and Iraq so far, the total is only $160 billion — about 20 percent of the deficit. Tax cuts for the two years come to $510 billion, or nearly 70 percent of the total. But the president’s deceptions are a matter for another time.

For 2004, the president has asked for $399.1 billion for the military — 51 percent of what’s called "discretionary spending," as compared to $49 billion for health and $29 billion for international affairs, more than five times the aggregate state deficit for the year.

What have our military expenditures to do with the state of the states? After all, we are a long way from the guns vs. butter arguments, when we used to show how many new schools or hospitals could be built for the cost of one new aircraft carrier. Approve the recent war or condemn it, it was as swift as it was and caused as few (relatively) casualties as it did in significant part because of that same aircraft carrier, the precision munitions and so forth.

Like it or not, we are the world’s only superpower, and there really are some people out there who seek to do us harm, and there really are some other people out there who need our help if they are to live in anything approximating dignity.

Few people would argue that all domestic priorities ought take precedence over any military expenditures. So the question is: How much is too much? Which is to say, at the outer "edges" of our military budget –say, the last $100 million or $200 million — are we confident that what we are buying is sufficiently important to warrant cutting back on Medicare, education or on any of the other items that comprise the core of our commitment to our citizens?

For example, we have nine supercarrier battle groups, with a 10th under construction. No other nation has even one. We have more advanced fighters and bombers than all other nations combined, and we have two new stealth aircraft types awaiting production. No other nation has any.

One of those new planes is the F-22, designed during the Cold War to counter new Soviet planes that have in fact never been built. The F-22s cost $204 million each, and the cost of the total program is a shade under $70 billion.

The problem here is obvious: Very, very few of us are competent to say that the F-22 is a luxury we cannot afford. When we do, we sound naive or unpatriotic; fearing ineffectuality, we remain silent or grumble privately. But the Pentagon has a virtually endless supply of "experts," and the geographically decentralized nature of defense contracting today ensures widespread congressional support for major military procurement programs.

Many years ago, I developed a definition of personal affluence: Affluence, I decided, was when you could go ahead with your summer vacation plans even after learning that one of your children needed orthodontia.

I still regard that as a reasonable definition and fear greatly that in the current temper and with our current leadership, we first make our travel plans and only then, if there is money left over, turn our attention to our dental needs — and to food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and health care for all. And there is no money left over. None. As the president well knows.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope (Jewish Lights, Woodstock, Vt, 2001).

We Must Share Our Blessings With the Poor

As we began our seders this week, one of our first acts was yachatz. We held high a matzah and recited, "Ha Lachma Anya" (behold, the matzah, the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.)

The very flatness and blandness of the matzah remind us of the empty and oppressed lives of the Israelite slaves — and of downtrodden people in all places and in all times.

Lest we think that economic injustice is a thing of another place, consider the city of Los Angeles. How can the same city that registers 20 percent of all the Rolls-Royces in the United States also be known as the homelessness capital of the country? The disparity of income between the richest and poorest members of this city should shame even the banana republics.

More than 2.5 million residents of this region have no medical insurance, yet plastic surgery is a cottage industry in parts of Los Angeles. No wonder Los Angeles has been aptly characterized as "a ‘First World City’ flourishing atop a ‘Third World City.’"

This week, Jewish leaders conducted Passover seders to call attention to three local struggles to achieve justice. These three campaigns — for janitors, Santa Monica hotel workers and nursing home workers — represent efforts on the part of the religious community to bring some semblance of economic fairness to groups fighting for better wages and working conditions.

For example, take nursing home workers into whose hands we entrust our elderly, our infirm and ourselves. The annual median salary for California’s certified nurse’s aides, the front-line caregivers in nursing homes, is a shameful $17,638. These workers are 50 percent more likely to lack health insurance than the general population.

Each nursing home worker tends to 15-20 patients during the daytime and up to 35 patients at night, leading to compromised care and high rates of on-the-job injuries. Not surprisingly, certified nursing aides have a turnover rate of 78 percent.

For these reasons, more than 80 rabbis and 75 ministers and priests have signed a statement of principles in support of low-wage workers. The statement reads:

"We, as religious and business leaders, believe that we should strive for a state in which all low-wage workers, whether they are direct employees or contracted out, should be:

"Paid a living wage that allows them to meet the basic needs of their families.

"Provided with full health-care benefits for them and their families.

"Employed by companies that abide by all applicable laws — including the right to organize.

"Treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve."

This simple statement embodies the teachings of Judaism on the just needs of workers. For example, Jewish law absolutely prohibits oshek (withholding fair wages). The principle of oshek is based on two biblical commandments:

1. "You shall not defraud your fellow [man]. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning" (Leviticus 19:13).

2. "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger, in one of the communities of your land. You must give him his wages on the same day before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry out to the Eternal One against you, and you will incur guilt" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

Both biblical and rabbinic law seek to prevent the recurrence of Ezekiel’s indictment: "The people of the land have practiced fraud and committed robbery; they have wronged the poor and needy, have defrauded the stranger without redress" (Ezekiel 22:29).

America has blessed the Jewish community with prosperity, freedom and security. The Passover haggadah calls on us to share our bounty, especially at this season.

"Let all who are hungry, come and eat," says the "Ha Lachma Anya." "Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover with us. Now we are servants; next year may we all be free."

Now our poor are exploited; next year may they — and we — know the fullness of America’s promise.

Rabbi Alan Henkin is regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Budget Worries

Gov. Gray Davis’ proposed state budget for 2002-2003 has local Jewish organizations worried.

With the state’s approximately $12 billion deficit (in a proposed $98 billion budget) covered by program cuts, along with loans and spending deferrals, local agencies such as Jewish Family Service (JFS) and Jewish Vocational Service may face a significant reduction in funding.

"Jewish community agencies get literally millions and millions and millions of dollars in funding from the government for provision of nonsectarian services," said Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). "Right now we have legislators saying, ‘You need to worry.’"

The programs most at risk are those funded directly through the state’s General Fund, which comprises about 80 percent of the budget. Since General Fund allocations are not specifically directed toward programs but funneled through state agencies, they are politically easier to cut when budgets get tight.

While Paul Castro, Jewish Family Service CEO, expects most of his organization’s funding will be "at least held constant or only [suffer] a slight reduction," more than a quarter of JFS’ budget comes from the state.

Jessica Toledano, who monitors the state budget for JCRC as director of government relations, said, "Any organization that gets money from the state General Fund is on alert."

For example, JFS programs funded in part by the state include the family violence program, which assists victims of domestic violence, and the citizenship program, which helps immigrants through the difficult process of becoming a citizen. Senior citizen health care programs and the Linkages program, which connects those in need of mental health care with appropriate providers, are also endangered by the proposed budget cuts. In all, JFS receives $6 million of its $22 million budget from the state.

The programs most reliant on General Fund dollars are those serving the elderly. Other Jewish agency nonsectarian services, such as job training and meal programs, are generally either federal or state-mandated services, with allocations set aside in harder-to-cut special funding.

The governor’s budget is only the first step in a months-long process toward preparing the final state budget, so it is still too early to know exactly what services will have to be cut.

However, Jewish organizations are not waiting to see where the ax falls. Through the JCRC and statewide through the Jewish Political Action Committee in Sacramento, they are preparing their own set of priorities and budgeting necessities.

As Hirschfeld put it, "We’re engaged now in a consultative process with professional and lay leaders of Jewish agencies, deciding what politically is worth advocating for and what we cannot save."

Toledano is optimistic that programs that seem endangered now may yet be funded: "There are other pots to look in. In a few months, there may be money."

The state’s legislative analyst’s office, which released a report on Davis’ proposals last week, is more skeptical about the budget’s workability, noting, "While ‘on paper’ the plan appears to work, many of its assumptions are overly optimistic," which "raises the risk of substantial future budgetary imbalances emerging." The report goes on to note that, in addition to other shortfalls in the proposal, the governor’s budget assumes nearly $3 billion in spending reductions for this year, which have yet to be implemented.

Jewish organizations are considering teaming up for lobbying efforts with like-minded providers of nonsectarian services "to try to be a stronger force in Sacramento," Toledano told The Journal. JCRC works with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC), to secure funding in Sacramento. JPAC Chair Barbara Yaroslavsky wrote in the organization’s December newsletter, "Maintaining funding for our agencies will be very difficult in 2002."

For most concerned citizens, however, now is not the time to be worried, Hirschfeld says. Many political and economic factors are expected to come into play between now and July 1, when the final state budget must be passed by the Legislature.

Castro stressed that because the governor’s budget is far from final, people with concerns can influence the cuts made to service programs.

"Anybody with a relationship or contact with a legislator should write them," he urged. "Tell them not to balance the budget on the backs of these vulnerable populations.

"The important thing to keep in mind is that this process has just begun," he said. "This initial draft in January will look much different in July."

Your Letters

Palestinian Statehood

It is hard to believe that thoughtful people in the Jewish community can still oppose a Palestinian state and think that moral, political and economic catastrophe can be avoided while Israel continues to occupy 1.5 million people (“The Dangers of a Palestinian State,” Nov. 23).

Avi Davis conjures up stale arguments that a Palestinian state would take over Jordan and then join with Iraq, Syria and Iran in attacking Israel. Jordan alone — and certainly neighbor states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia — would never allow this. Moreover, Palestinian terrorism against Israel would become acts of war subject to clear Israeli retaliation.

A future Palestinian state cannot begin without a new relationship between Israel and a Palestinian people responsible for their own society and government.

David Perel, Los Angeles

Avi Davis criticizes the Bush administration for recognizing a future Palestinian state, but completely ignores the fact that it has been anticipated by all concerned parties since the Oslo accords.

Whether we like it or not, a Palestinian state (just as the Palestinian Authority before it) will be as corrupt and undemocratic as any of the other nations in Middle East, and Israel will remain on the defensive until either the majority of Middle Eastern states become democratic or become convinced that trade with Israel furthers their interests.

Robert Hirschman,Encino

Rob Eshman puts the cart before the horse, just as many commentators do (“The P Word,” Nov. 16). The issue is not whether the Jewish community or Israel should support the creation of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state will follow when Palestinian Arabs and their Arab brethren accept the Jewish community as its equals.

Alan Wallace, Sherman Oaks

Harry Potter

Since Rabbi Toba August has equated “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” — a story and movie whose research and incantations are based on the Wiccan religion — to Jewish values taught in Pirkei Avot, I anxiously await the rabbi’s upcoming articles on the comparison of Jesus’ inspiring Sermon on the Mount to the sayings of our Talmudic literature. Such befitting topics for The Jewish Journal to discuss on the Kids page.

Joseph Schames,Los Angeles

Kosher Thanksgiving

Thank you, Rabbi Eli Hecht, for describing the Orthodox dilemma with non-Jewish holidays, like Thanksgiving (“A Kosher Holiday,” Nov. 23). I would bet that few Jews realize that many, if not most, Charedi Jews don’t celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and Independence Day. Most of the frum day schools are even open for Jewish studies on those days.

Saul Newman,Los Angeles

Salam al-Marayati

Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (Letters, Nov. 2) defends Salam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Sokatch says that al-Marayati has “apologized” for saying Israel should be the prime suspect in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, “and publicly reiterated that apology in no less a forum than The New York Times.”

Yet the Sept. 28 issue of The Jewish Journal reports that al-Marayati “told the Los Angeles Times that the quotation [al-Marayati’s accusation against Israel] was accurate but taken out of context, and he sent a ‘clarification’ to Jewish leaders.” That’s not what I call an apology.

I turned to The New York Times, which reported on the episode Oct. 22. The Times reported that “al-Marayati later said that the remark ‘gave regrettable and unintended offense to Jewish Americans.'” That’s not an apology, either.

Apology or no apology, Sokatch has failed to mention al-Marayati’s very long record of making extremist statements.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, President Zionist Organization of America, Greater Los Angeles District

The Importance of Zinni

One of the most significant elements in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech of Nov. 19 was the appointment of Anthony Zinni, the much-decorated and admired retired Marine Corps four-star general, as his Mideast envoy.

Zinni’s last post was as head of CENTCOM, the command that covers 25 countries, including the Persian Gulf, most of the Middle East (except Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey), as well as Afghanistan and the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. During the Gulf War, he was in charge of installing the Patriots in Israel — a task for which he received special recognition from the Israeli military.

By becoming the first American Mideast envoy with a military background, Zinni has already made history. But there’s a lot more to him than Vietnam decorations and experience in such hot spots as Somalia and Pakistan. Exhibiting none of the standoffish bravado often associated with American military leaders, he’s as at home in the civilian world as in the military one.

Powell turned to Zinni because he has the specific personal traits — among them the ability to instill confidence and to listen to others’ views — that could lead to success in solving the world’s most difficult diplomatic problem.

Some say that because Zinni was assigned to CENTCOM in the late 1990s, when he built a reputation and many close contacts in the Arab and Muslim world, he won’t be able to understand Israel’s concerns.

Quite the contrary. I am certain that Prime Minister Sharon will find Zinni a kindred spirit, to whom he can relate as a fellow retired military officer. Zinni will certainly show a special understanding of the risks and horror of terrorism, because CENTCOM has seen more American lives lost to terrorism than any other command. Barracks in Lebanon, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the USS Cole in Yemen, and the U.S. Embassy in Kenya are more than enough to make a former CENTCOM commander understand the need for the Mideast to reach stability.

It will be very difficult for anyone to bring about a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, but this is the clear and necessary first step in returning the peace process to the track set forth in the Mitchell and Tenet plans, which are widely recognized by all parties as the only current path back from the brink.

With Zinni’s appointment, another debate has apparently been resolved within the Bush administration: that any meaningful progress can only be achieved in the Mideast through more active American diplomatic engagement there. The region’s importance is too great, and the consequences of further escalation too frightening to contemplate, to simply leave the Israelis and Palestinians a phone number to call. The Bush administration has now acted, and it should be congratulated for doing so.

The administration is enjoying the overwhelming support of the American Jewish community in its prosecution of the war on terrorism. A majority in the Jewish community understand the relationship between the Arab-Israeli conflict and broader American national security concerns. Most American Jews also understand there is no contradiction between maintaining America’s special relationship with her only truly democratic ally in the region and simultaneously acting as a credible broker in pursuing an elusive peace.

Zinni may be one of the few people willing to volunteer his time and hard-earned reputation to accomplish that peace. He goes with the best wishes of the Jewish community and their hopes and aspirations for his success.

Letters to the Editor

Orthodox Numbers

As a sociologist of American Jews, I read the three articles (“Setting the Record Straight,” “Flawed Methodology” and “Standing by the Data,” Sept. 15) with great interest. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, along with Anthony Gordon and Richard M. Horowitz, raised important methodological issues which – if unaddressed – do indeed have the potential to undercount the Orthodox population. These Orthodox advocates also correctly pointed out the explosion of Orthodox Jewish institutions in numerous neighborhoods. Nonetheless, I would tend to agree with Pini Herman that the numbers of Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles has not increased in recent years.

How can this be? How can these two facts exist simultaneously? The answer lies in understanding important generational differences in the social construction and definition of Orthodoxy. For the older (65 and over) generation of Orthodox Jews, historical and sociological conditions in the U.S. dictated a more integrated, acculturated approach to American life. These Jews, for example, would often attend public schools, eat in restaurants not under rabbinical supervision and cover their heads while in synagogue or at home, but not at work or in the street. For younger Orthodox Jews, by contrast, individual and institutional distinctiveness, visibility and separation (parochial day schools, kosher pizza parlors and even Hatzolah ambulances, to name but a few examples) are fundamental elements which shape their understanding of contemporary American Orthodox life.

A drive down Pico Boulevard reveals the strength of the younger generation of American Orthodoxy. But the older, less visible – yet demographically substantial – Orthodox generation is dying out. Recent community and national studies, such as the 1990 National Jewish Populations Survey, have consistently demonstrated that older American Jews are more likely to self-report as Orthodox than American Jews of any other age range. In the short term, at least, the quantitative state of L.A.’s Orthodox Jewry will not change significantly. In qualitative terms, however, it has already dramatically redefined what it means to be Orthodox in American society.

Jonathon Ament, Instructor
American Jewish Studies/Modern Jewish Sociology University of Judaism

One of the many problems with this type of study is that the respondent defines himself subjectively rather than by any objective criteria. As a day school principal for 27 years, numerous parents told me that they came from Orthodox families. Subsequent discussion revealed this to be inaccurate. However, parents or grandparents who attended an Orthodox synagogue more than twice a year and kept some form of kosher observance were considered Orthodox even if they worked on Shabbos.

For many years, I worked for a large Orthodox congregation of 700 families, of whom perhaps two dozen were actually Orthodox. Yet the members clearly identified themselves with the Orthodox movement. Such congregations and even Orthodox day schools where the large majority were not observant in the Orthodox manner were very common 30 years ago. Today, this is not common partly because of the rise in the number of non-Orthodox schools. Most Orthodox congregations today have only a few non-Orthodox members.

Dr. Herman may be right in the number who identify with Orthodoxy, but there can be absolutely no doubt that the number of practicing Orthodox Jews is dramatically up. For him to simply dismiss the obvious realities in the number of day school and yeshiva students, synagogues, kosher restaurants, etc., without looking behind the facts or openly discussing the shortcomings of the methods employed smacks of arrogance.

Dr. George Lebovitz, Los Angeles


I appreciate the opportunity to have contributed my thoughts to The Jewish Journal’s article on the Westside JCC (“In the Center of Controversy,” Sept. 22). However, there was such an expanse of time between my interview and publication that the situation is now noticeably different.

I wish to acknowledge the progress on security issues made by the center’s administration. I also feel that the core of my personal position was somehow lost in the editing process. I believe that the center is a place with great potential. My willingness to speak out is an expression of my hope for its future.

Karen Benjamin, Los Angeles

Jesus Day

If Fred Sands honestly wants to understand the brouhaha over Gov. George W. Bush’s calling June 10, 2000, Jesus Day in Texas (Letters, Sept. 15), I suggest that he give me a call at (310) 854-3381. I will introduce him to Zack, a 12-year-old boy from Texas. As reported on ABC’s “20/20,” three months before his Bar Mitzvah, Zack was invited to a Southern Baptist youth meeting and coerced by an adult into converting to Christianity. This Southern Baptist even told Zack that he could be Jewish and believe in Jesus at the same time. Zack and his parents will gladly explain the painful difference between “Jesus Day” and “Honor Israel Day.”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz , Jews for Judaism

Fred C. Sands completely misses the point of the “brouhaha over Gov. George W. Bush’s proclamation calling June 10, 2000, Jesus Day in Texas.”

The point is separation of church and state. Anyone in public office in this country must never blur the line of separation of church and state or people of all religions – particularly the Jewish people – will be in serious trouble.

Sands asks, “Why are Jews so afraid of the mention of Jesus Christ?” It is not the mention of Jesus, but who mentions it and under what circumstances that is frightening. When people are truly religious, they don’t push religion everywhere they go. If they do, especially if they are in public office in this country, one has to question their motive.

Let us ask all politicians to respect and adhere to separation of church and state and live each moment of their lives in a religious way but not preach to us about how religious they are.

Roslyn Walker, Marina del Rey


As the first year of operation of KOREH L.A. draws to an end, I wanted to share some interesting statistics with you. Close to 600 KOREH volunteers worked in over 30 schools throughout Los Angeles during the past year. Another 800 people indicated their interest and are waiting to be trained.

In order to evaluate this first year, KOREH L.A. hired two Cal Tech researchers to probe the response of volunteers, teachers and principals to the program. One of the questions posed to the volunteers was where they heard about KOREH L.A. You will be interested to know that over 20 percent of our volunteers first learned about KOREH L.A. from The Jewish Journal.

As we recruit for our second year, we are keeping careful records of where each prospective volunteer heard about the program. The informal information that the KOREH L.A. staff has gathered indicates that close to 25 percent of the prospective volunteers heard about the program from The Jewish Journal.KOREH L.A. has touched the Jewish community in a very deep way. It has allowed many people to put into action their commitment to education and literacy, and especially their commitment to the welfare of our city. As we look forward to a second successful year of KOREH L.A., we thank you very much for your ongoing support.

Elaine Albert, DirectorKOREH L.A.

Teresa Strasser

When I read the letter written by a reader in Mission Viejo (Letters, Sept. 15), I had to respond.This person claims to be “unprejudiced” but seems to be intolerant of interracial marriages. I was unsure from the letter whether this person was more offended by the picture of a white woman in the arms of a Black man or by an assumption that this man was not Jewish.

What I would really like to know is would this reader be offended by my wedding picture – a nice Jewish white girl in the arms of a Black man, who also happens to be Jewish?

Name withheld by request, Los Angeles